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Welcome to American Cinematographer’s year 2000 archive of reviews on recent DVD releases.

To view the January 2001 issue of DVD releases, go here. To view the December 2000 issue of DVD releases, go here.
To view the November 2000 issue of DVD releases, go here.
To view the October 2000 issue of DVD releases, go here.
To view the September 2000 issue of DVD releases, go here.
To view the August 2000 issue of DVD releases, go here.
To view the July 2000 issue of DVD releases, go here.
June 2000 issue, go here.
MAY 2000 issue, go here.
APRIL 2000 issue, go here.
MARCH 2000 issue, go here.
FEBRUARY 2000 issue, go here.

Interested in purchasing limited edition, autographed copies of some of these DVDs? visit our Videostore!

For information on DVD submissions for possible inclusion on this page, go here.

January, 2001 DVD RELEASES
Treasures from American Film Archives: 50 Preserved Films

"Orphan films" are those that are abandoned by the motion-picture marketplace. Because they have less immediate market value, orphans slip through the cultural net, and their preservation falls to nonprofit and public archives. These pictures come in many forms: documentaries and newsreels, avant-garde and independent works, amateur and home movies, animated and industrial films, and "silent" films from cinema’s first 30 years.

Treasures from American Film Archives is a landmark collection that represents a large collaboration between several institutions that for years have worked to save orphan films from loss and destruction. It is now general knowledge that in the past, all films were made of highly volatile materials, and it is difficult to estimate the total number of films we’ve lost. One estimate of U.S. production suggests that only about 15 percent of all silent films survive. Archives preserve these fragile works through expensive copying onto more stable film bases, storing the originals under the cool, dry conditions that will ensure their survival.

The 50 preserved films on this four disc set, which has a running time of nearly 11 hours, were culled from 12 nonprofit archives by the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF). The foundation’s chief criterion in making its selection was rarity, and indeed, 45 of the films have never been available on video.

DVD is an ideal format to showcase this eclectic collection, and each disc can be run as a separate (and generally chronological) program. The short films, some running less than a minute, can be individually accessed. Each film is interactively linked to a special section, "About the Film" or "About the Archive" (from which it came), with narration by actor Laurence Fishburne. The boxed set also includes an excellent, 138-page illustrated book.

The earliest film in the collection is a 30-second Blacksmithing Scene shot in 1893 by the Edison Company. There are also two Edison peepshow kinetoscopes from 1894. Three American Beauties, a 40-second patriotic film from 1906, was colored by stencil on release prints using a separate cut-out stencil for each color, and was shown in nickelodeon theaters at the end of a program. It proved so popular that Edison’s original negative wore out and had to be reshot, complete with in-camera dissolves.

Several features are included in the collection, most notably Hell’s Hinges (1922), a 64-minute William S. Hart Western; Toll of the Sea (1922), a two-color Technicolor feature; and Snow White (1916) a 63-minute adaptation of the classic tale by Famous Players Film Company. (Starring Marguerite Clark, this version of Snow White inspired a young Walt Disney, who attended a matinee for newsboys in Kansas City upon its original release. Disney’s memory of this picture was the inspiration for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first animated feature.)

The discs also offer amazing home-movie footage shot in 16mm aboard the Hindenburg a year before its disastrous crash, as well as some of the earliest sound home movies ever made. Groucho Marx’s home movies from 1933 are very well-shot and reveal a Beverly Hills that is still quite rural. One of the eye-opening amateur films in the collection is Cologne, a 14-minute social documentary about a small German farm community in Minnesota; it was produced by local doctor Raymond W. Dowidat and his wife, Esther.

The pioneering 1924 independent film The Chechahcos was produced by the Alaska Moving Picture Corporation entirely in Alaska. Running 86 minutes, this silent melodrama boasts excellent production values, although Variety, upon the film’s original release, commented that "its value commercially is still open to discussion in view of its difficult pronunciation."

The NFPF and all of the participating archives are to be commended for their contributions to this pioneering collection. It is of compelling interest for any student of American film.

Ray Zone

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Rosemary’s Baby

Generally regarded as one of the greatest horror films ever made, Roman Polanski’s classic chiller is, in a sense, an odd fit for the genre. As production designer Richard Sylbert astutely points out in an interview included on this DVD, Rosemary’s Baby is "the horror film with no horror in it."

In a deceptively breezy tone, the film chronicles the pregnancy of newlywed Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow), who becomes increasingly suspicious that her unborn child is threatened by a Satanic plot spearheaded by a pair of quirky elderly neighbors in her New York apartment building. A masterpiece of subtle directorial suggestion, the film only implies horror through Polanski’s smart editing; judicious snippets of mysterious, barely overhead dialogue; and a ruthlessly subjective perspective (aided by the claustrophobic use of wide-angle lenses). Modern horror auteurs (are there any?) would learn much from studying this perfectly calibrated motion picture, which remains as unnerving today as it was 30 years ago.

Rosemary’s Baby is a highlight in the illustrious career of William Fraker, ASC, and Paramount’s DVD transfer preserves his images with pleasing colors and excellent sharpness, with only the occasional loss of contrast in darker scenes (a common shortcoming in faded, older prints). Polanski and Fraker cunningly filmed much of the movie in the style of a Doris Day picture, with cheery, high-key lighting and bright colors. This visual strategy subverts the audience’s preconceptions of a "horror movie," making Rosemary’s vivid nightmares and increasing paranoia all the more powerful.

Rosemary’s Baby is a virtual textbook on how to use visual composition to turn the screws on an audience, and the film contains one of Polanski’s most brilliantly subtle images: a brief point-of-view shot from Rosemary’s perspective (at the 28:35 mark on the disc) as she glances back toward a parlor where her husband, Guy (John Cassavetes) and an overly solicitous neighbor, Roman Castavet (Sidney Blackmer), are deeply immersed in conversation. Neither is visible through the parlor’s doorway, but the covert intensity of their discussion is conveyed by a billowing plume of cigarette smoke. A seemingly banal shot, this moment later proves to be the film’s decisive moment.

A commentary by Polanski would have been an ideal feature on this disc, and Paramount has tried to atone for its absence by instead including interviews with Polanski, Sylbert and legendary producer Robert Evans. But where is Fraker? Sylbert is the most engaging raconteur of the group, but it’s a treat to hear all three of these old pros wax nostalgic about Rosemary’s Baby, one of those rare Hollywood films in which all of the proper elements fell into place.

The only other supplement is a trippy, Flower Power-era documentary titled "Mia and Roman," directed by a digressive fellow named Hatami. Highlights include Farrow asserting that she’s "not a flighty person" as the camera shows her performing a free-form dance on set, and a great little glimpse of Polanski arranging Farrow’s arm just so for a scene set at Rosemary’s kitchen table. As Polanski rightly states, "The details are everything."

Chris Pizzello

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Get Carter

Veteran British director Mike Hodges, currently riding a wave of critical adulation for his sleeper art film Croupier (see AC August ’00), made his bones with this diamond-hard study of vengeance and retribution in the British gangster underworld. Although Get Carter was recently remade as a vehicle for Sly Stallone, discerning viewers are strongly advised to seek out this thoughtfully assembled DVD of the absorbing and entertaining original. Michael Caine does a truly menacing turn as Carter, a ruthless mob killer who goes to brutal lengths to find those responsible for his brother’s mysterious death. As an unstoppable instrument of revenge, Carter is perhaps rivaled only by Lee Marvin’s Walker in John Boorman’s similarly themed Point Blank.

An avowed enemy of slick cinematography ("[The influence of] commercials has almost destroyed filmmaking for me," Hodges complains on the disc), the director collaborated with cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky to craft an appropriately blunt, unsentimental look for Get Carter this is one film that will never be endorsed by the British tourism industry! Making superb use of the seedy-as-hell Newcastle and other English locations, the filmmakers often trained long lenses on the actors as foreground objects passed through the frame to provide both visual depth and a voyeuristic perspective. Hodges even decided to go AWOL from one location for a few hours before filming a crucial scene, hoping for a sudden, unwelcome bout of sunshine to pass.

The DVD transfer is about what one can expect from a 30-year-old print. Nicks and scars are occasionally apparent, but in general Get Carter features decent clarity and accurate colors, though the blacks range from perfect in some scenes to a slightly soupy gray in others.

Well-respected in England but never given the chance it deserved in U.S. theaters, Get Carter has been lavished with special extras by Warner Bros. First and foremost is a very interesting audio commentary by Hodges, Caine and Suschitzky. Though the three were recorded separately, the DVD producers have done a good job of parceling out the most useful information from each. Hodges has great fun pointing out some of the unusual details that he included in some scenes, such as an enigmatic, six-fingered man highlighted during a brief cutaway in an early pub scene. The director also explains the surprising, almost Christian ethic that underscores the film’s brutality, explaining that Carter’s fate is a sort of karmic retribution for the manner in which he leads his life. Suschitzky discusses the nuts-and-bolts details involved in the location cinematography, while Caine appraises his great performance in his typically cheerful, unpretentious manner.

Also included on the disc are an old-school trailer that gives away far too much of the plot, and a short glimpse of one of the film’s unsung heroes, composer Roy Budd, as he plays Carter’s naggingly catchy jazz theme in his studio. The DVD authors pay tribute to Budd’s highly distinctive score by including a music-only audio track as a listening option for the film.

Chris Pizzello

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December, 2000 DVD RELEASES
  • Braveheart (1995)
    2.35:1 (16 x 9 Enhanced)
    Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround 2.0
    Paramount, $29.99

In his director’s commentary on Paramount’s new Braveheart DVD, Mel Gibson asserts that one of the production’s most valuable assets was its chiropractor. He’s only half-kidding — his actors were pummeled, flung off horses and trampled by the hundreds in amazing medieval battle scenes that sometimes took six weeks to shoot. Gibson displayed considerable cajones in directing this sprawling three-hour epic, which chronicles Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace’s bloody rebellion against the British in the 13th century. His daring paid off, as the film went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.

The alternately gorgeous and horrific images captured by cinematographer John Toll, ASC (who earned the Oscar for Best Cinematography) have received a near-immaculate transfer from Paramount. Working in the anamorphic format, Toll captures both the natural beauty of the Scottish Highlands’ awesome vistas, as well as the sheer squalor of life in the 13th century. He was given some help in the latter regard by near-constant rain that the production had no choice but to work through — soon after arriving in Scotland, the crew discovered that they were shooting in a region with the highest precipitation level in all of Europe.

A making-of documentary on the DVD fills in some of the sketchy historical details of Wallace’s life, while also offering the amusing sight of Gibson on location reading from a fake guide entitled A Beginner’s Guide to Directing the Epic. The star had to feel overwhelmed by his dual acting and directing chores during the massive undertaking, and he never misses a chance to praise Toll during his genial audio commentary. Gibson candidly points out sequences that were improvised in 30 minutes but look as though they were labored over for days. For instance, a scene in which guilt-ridden Robert the Bruce (Angus McFayden) walks among seemingly hundreds of dead Scottish warriors was achieved on the spot merely by Toll’s selective use of camera angles and fog. Gibson also details the jump cuts and stutter cuts he employed in the editing room to further juice the battle footage, and he gently ribs Steven Spielberg for allegedly lifting the technique and employing it to much more deliberate effect in Saving Private Ryan.

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Jurassic Park

Speaking of Spielberg, Jurassic Park saw the renowned director don his Pure Entertainer cap, returning to the man-versus-leviathan suspense of his 70s films Duel and Jaws. While this audience-pleaser lacks the subtle human dynamics and existential edge that made those early films classics, it’s still the Rolls-Royce of “thrill ride” cinema, thanks to Spielberg’s pure, inimitable visual storytelling. It’s customary for effects-driven films to turn horribly rote between the CGI shots, but Spielberg maintains the energy even when the dinosaurs are offscreen; there’s nary a wasted shot or dull moment in the tight, efficient Jurassic Park.

Universal’s DVD transfer is excellent, presenting the film’s dynamic, high-key images (shot by Dean Cundey, ASC) with superb clarity and brilliant color saturation. There’s no commentary from Spielberg, but the disc makes up for it with compelling supplements. First up is a well-organized documentary that breaks the film up into its preproduction, location shooting and postproduction phases. The documentary offers a particularly fascinating chronicle of the good-natured competition among effects gurus Dennis Muren, ASC; Stan Winston, Michael Lantieri, and Phil Tippett to achieve the most seamless onscreen dinosaurs in history. Spielberg cannily adopted Tippett’s observation, “I think I’m extinct,” into the film after Tippett who was lobbying for the use of his own “go-motion” dinosaurs got his first look at Muren’s groundbreaking CGI creations.

Elsewhere on the disc are a few fly-on-the-wall videotapings of Spielberg’s early prep meetings, and a sampling of the surprisingly detailed go-motion footage created by Tippett to flesh out Spielberg’s storyboards (which are also included). In addition, the disc offers production photos, a series of trailers (including a teaser for Jurassic Park III, slated for release next summer), a useful “dinosaur encyclopedia” and even a brief look at the sound creations of the film’s Foley artists. But the most insightful moment of the extras occurs in the “location scout” feature, when, for a few moments, the viewer is brought into the mind of one of the world’s greatest directors as he dreams up a key shot for Jurassic Park with the aid of a video camera.

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Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography

The history of cinematography is a subject that could easily stand up to an exhaustive, 10-hour PBS series by Ken Burns. But the genius stroke of the 90-minute Visions of Light was to handle the topic with the breadth to satisfy cinematography buffs — who can be an exacting bunch — as well as the populist panache to appeal to the casual moviegoer who ventures to the cineplex once a week. This documentary, directed by Todd McCarthy, Arnold Glassman and Stuart Samuels and photographed by Nancy Schreiber, ASC, pays tribute to the gifted artists (a tag humbly refuted by many cinematographers) who are responsible for the simple pleasure we all feel as we’re swept up in the towering images of the big screen.

Visions of Light smartly bypasses intrusive third-party narration and goes right to the source of cinematography wisdom — dozens of the greatest living cameramen in the world, who guide viewers through the most important developments in the history of the moving image, from the freewheeling early silents to the French New Wave to the 1970s “New York style” and beyond. Renowned works of cinematography such as Citizen Kane and The Conformist are highlighted, but attention is also paid to more obscure but equally important visual achievements like 1955’s film-noir classic The Big Combo.

Naturally, this disc is rife with fascinating set stories. One of the standouts is provided by William Fraker, ASC, who recalls director Roman Polanski’s insistence on partially hiding actress Ruth Gordon in a doorway for a shot in Rosemary’s Baby. The cinematographer only figured out why the director was so adamant after seeing the film in a theater and noticing 800 audience members simultaneously craning their necks sideways in a vain attempt to get a full glimpse of Gordon.

Visions of Light contains no extras, but the film is like a particularly juicy 90-minute DVD supplement. The only drawback to the disc is the sometimes rough quality of the brilliantly edited film clips — a shame, when one considers the pristine DVDs now available of many of the highlighted films. As Visions of Light was released in 1992, one can only hope for an updated version featuring the next generation of star cinematographers and the visual innovations of the 90s and beyond.

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November, 2000 DVD RELEASES
  • Magnolia (1999)
    2.40:1 (16 x 9 Enhanced)
    Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround 2.0
    New Line Platinum Series, $29.98

Spurred on by the relative creative freedom of the ’70s, director Robert Altman was obviously in an ambitious frame of mind when he set out to make Nashville, now generally regarded as one of the great American films of the era. The director trained his camera on two dozen winners, losers, watchers and power brokers during a bustling weekend in the country-music capital, aiming for no less than a definitive study of American mores and values at the 200-year mark in the country’s history. It’s a decidedly offbeat, unsentimental portrait that ends on a note of crushing cynicism.

Employing a sly, unobtrusive visual style, improvisations from his actors, and a unique multi-microphone setup (which records cast members even when they’re not aware of it), Altman is a cinematic innovator whose great gift is his uncanny ability to capture the offhand, disjointed rhythms of real life. In his commentary on the DVD, Altman continually praises the fast, documentary-like work of cinematographer Paul Lohmann, who had to adapt to constant location changes around Nashville.

The DVD transfer of Nashville is hardly pristine. The images generally sport accurate colors and decent sharpness, but there are some noticeable age artifacts, a consistent lack of shadow detail and occasional, annoying flickering. (One should remember, however, that Nashville is 25 years old.) The disc also features a re-edited Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, which helps somewhat in discerning the half-audible (but terribly important) background chatter that is Altman’s trademark. The English subtitles function adds further clarity by highlighting this dialogue in italics.

Extras include the amazingly concise trailer (which introduces all of the film’s 24 characters) and a short Altman interview segment juiced up with scenes from the film. The feature is informative but unnecessary because Altman addresses most of the same issues in his breezy, somewhat detached commentary. The director doesn’t offer many insights on the film’s themes and complexities, which is probably intentional, considering his determinedly non-manipulative filmmaking style. The multi-layered Nashville presents a welcome challenge to the viewer’s own powers of interpretation.

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Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, a feast of Los Angeles dysfunction, drew a lot of comparisons to Nashville, but the similarities are only structural. Like Altman’s film, Magnolia juggles a complex web of interconnected characters over a short but intense time frame. Anderson possesses none of Altman’s cynicism, however, showering even his seemingly rancid characters with understanding and sympathy. While earning quite a few critical raves, Magnolia was also met in some quarters with startlingly passionate derision probably because its nakedly earnest tone and heightened emotions are so out of step with our current age of ironic detachment. While the film probably would have benefitted from a heavier hand in the editing room (as Anderson admits in one of the DVD supplements, "Final cut is a scary thing to give to a guy like me!") and a slightly less hysterical pitch in a few of the performances, these are mistakes of passion and ambition in other words, the best kind.

New Line’s DVD perfectly captures cinematographer Robert Elswit’s super-saturated and highly contrasty images, which must have made for a difficult transfer. Elswit’s vibrant colors and Anderson’s whip-smart camera moves and edits lend vitality to a film that could have easily become bogged down in its characters’ unending parade of misery.

The extras, featured on a second disc, are surprisingly modest considering the "New Line Platinum Series" tag. How did the gregarious Anderson resist recording a director’s commentary? In lieu of that, New Line has included an hour-long documentary by Mark Rance, who was given free reign by Anderson to shoot the film’s entire journey, from early crew screenings of films such as Network, through painstaking rehearsals and all the way to Anderson picking up the Golden Bear award at the 2000 Berlin Film Festival.

Also included is a hilarious infomercial featuring Tom Cruise’s outrageous messiah of misogyny, Frank "T.J." Mackey, which was seen only in fleeting glimpses in the finished film; a generous helping of trailers and TV spots; and Anderson’s clever music video for Mann’s Oscar-nominated song "Save Me," for which he assembled the film’s cast to appear alongside the ghostlike singer in various settings from the film. For those with a fetish for hidden DVD goodies, fast-forwarding through the color-bar section leads to a series of cast bloopers.

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Director Sam Peckinpah called Shane the best Western ever made quite a compliment from the man who made The Wild Bunch and it’s not hard to see why. Directed by George Stevens, Shane features a shockingly sober take on violence at a time when it wasn’t unusual to see screen gunslingers take five slugs at point-blank range and swagger away with nary a limp. Not that Shane is lacking in the action department a wild barroom brawl between homesteaders and rival cattle ranchers remains one of the best ever filmed, while the climactic confrontation between the stoic Shane (Alan Ladd) and the nefarious Wilson (Jack Palance) is an all-time classic. But the real backbone of the film lies in the reactions of young Joey Starett (Brandon De Wilde) to the violence he’s witnessing; Stevens cuts to the boy 19 times during the barroom brawl to register the tyke’s alternating horror and excitement.

Shane has rightfully been given the royal treatment by Paramount, which restored the negative and soundtrack and made a new video transfer. The results are gorgeous the richly colorful images photographed by Loyal Griggs, ASC (who collected an Oscar for his work) are remarkably clean, sharp and detailed, with only the rare instance of softness or wear on the negative. Day-for-night scenes have been returned to their properly dark level (compare these to the included trailer, in which "night" scenes look more like high noon), and interiors have been returned to their original look of "Rembrandt sketches."

In addition to the film’s old-fashioned trailer, an audio commentary by Stevens’ son, George Jr. (who worked on the film as a production assistant), and Shane associate producer Ivan Moffat is the only supplement on the disc, but it’s a good one. Listening to these two articulate and well-prepared Hollywood veterans is sheer film-buff bliss. They generally avoid the usual set stories, instead focusing their insights on the major directorial techniques and themes of Shane. Stevens points out that his father put the story in context visually by shooting most of the film with 75mm and 100mm lenses, thus making the surrounding Grand Teton Mountains of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, loom even larger. Moffat suggests that the film’s ambiguous attitude toward violence is due to the filmmakers’ World War II experiences, which were still fresh in their minds at the time of filming.

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October, 2000 DVD RELEASES
  • Jaws
    25th Anniversary Collector’s Edition
    2.35:1 (16 x 9 Enhanced)
    Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS Editions
    Universal, $26.98
  • Sleepy Hollow
    1.85:1 (16 x 9 Enhanced),
    Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround 2.0
    Paramount, $29.99
  • Manhattan
    2.35:1 (16 x 9 Enhanced),
    Dolby Digital Mono
    MGM, 19.98

Jaws would have to rank near the top of cinema’s long list of nightmare productions. A young Steven Spielberg and his crew were saddled with an unfinished B-movie script, a backbreaking schedule, exasperating location difficulties in Martha’s Vineyard, a mechanical shark that simply refused to cooperate, and constant threats by the money men to shut down a production that crew members had already dubbed Flaws. However, Spielberg cleverly turned some of these negatives into positives for example, by offering only fleeting glimpses of the malfunctioning shark until the last third of the movie, thus ratcheting up the audience’s anxiety to a nearly unbearable degree. Still, few could have predicted that the waterlogged production would become one of the greatest and most beloved suspense thrillers of all time.

Universal’s much-ballyhooed Jaws: Anniversary Collector’s Edition DVD isn’t all that it could have been, but it’s still a worthy treatment of an American classic. The transfer is clean and lively, serving up those famous, dread-inducing images (photographed by Bill Butler, ASC) with terrific sharpness, rich color saturation and only the rarest instance of age artifacts. Viewers with a DTS-ready receiver would be well-advised to buy the amped-up version of the movie, which offers a stunning demonstration of the amazingly crisp quality of DTS, along with the same supplements as the Dolby Digital 5.1 version.

The disc’s extras, while plentiful, are grouped together somewhat haphazardly. The best of the lot is Laurent Bouzereau’s well-researched, 50-minute documentary on the making of the film: this supplement also appears on a previous laserdisc edition, but it has been inexplicably cut down from its original two-hour length for the DVD. The documentary features almost every player who mattered in the Jaws saga: Spielberg, Butler, producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown, cast members Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Lorraine Gary, composer John Williams, and author Peter Benchley, among others. The documentary highlights Butler’s innovative handheld cinematography methods while filming on the ocean, and fascinating tidbits abound, among them Spielberg’s clever idea to increase the Great White’s dimensions in one scene by filming it with a small actor inside a miniature shark cage.

Also featured on the disc are several deleted scenes and outtakes, which are thrown together without any delineation or commentary. Most of the deleted scenes suffer from a bad sound mix, although they all display Spielberg’s visual panache.

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Sleepy Hollow

Director Tim Burton’s feverish imagination was really working overtime on Sleepy Hollow, a relentless Gothic vision of a headless horseman galloping through fog-filled forests in a vengeful quest for fresh heads. Boasting elaborate sets, charming old-school visual effects and gloriously stylized cinematography, Burton’s interpretation of the classic American folk tale is a feast for the eyes that pays absolutely no debt to realism. But all of the panache comes at a price: a certain emotional distance that not even Johnny Depp’s honorable performance as Ichabod Crane can entirely overcome. Sleepy Hollow is easy to admire, but harder to love.

The film’s gorgeous photography earned an Oscar nomination for cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC, who rendered the tale in nearly monochromatic colors and inky blacks (aided by the use of Deluxe’s Color Contrast Enhancement process). Lubezki’s stunning work is vividly captured on this nearly flawless transfer by Paramount. The filmmakers’ fiendish methods pay off in the not-infrequent scenes of bloody dismemberment, in which the strategically exaggerated red tones simply explode off the screen. The characters’ intentionally pale flesh tones are perfectly conveyed, while sharpness and contrast levels are also excellent.

The disc isn’t titled a special edition, but it certainly feels like one. Included is a commentary by Burton, a true horror-film aficionado who has a great time pointing out the many affectionate "movie moments" in Sleepy Hollow. There is also the "Behind the Legend" documentary on the making of the film, which comes off like a hard-sell promotional ad at first, complete with an overbearing narrator and irritating, nonstop music. Eventually, however, the documentary settles down and reveals some interesting details, particularly in regard to the film’s brilliant visual effects. (That said, it must be noted that the documentary astonishingly fails to include even a single mention of Lubezki’s extraordinary contribution.)

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In Stig Bjorkman’s book Woody Allen on Woody Allen, the director states that after completing Manhattan, he was so deeply unhappy with the results that he didn’t even want the film to be released thus lending credence to the notion that directors are the worst judges of their own films. The bittersweet, black-and-white Manhattan is the perfect synthesis of Allen’s more comedic fare (Annie Hall) and sober efforts (Interiors, Stardust Memories). In addition, it may well be his most beautifully photographed film ever, thanks to the great Gordon Willis, ASC.

A relaxed tale of romantic obsessions in the Big Apple, Manhattan saw the collaboration between Allen and Willis (who were working together for the third time) reach an unprecedented level of simplicity and eloquence. Many scenes feature no coverage whatsoever, allowing Willis’s beautifully precise anamorphic compositions and Allen’s inventive direction do all the work. Allen has said that he intended the film to be a snapshot of how people lived in a particular place and moment, and the atmospheric style fits the piece perfectly. The alienated characters are often dwarfed by the awesome cityscape of Manhattan, underscoring Allen’s theme: the difficulty of leading an ethical life in the big city.

The DVD (part of MGM’s recent series of Allen’s ’70s films) is bare-bones, featuring only the film and its theatrical trailer. (Allen has stated he is not a fan of director commentaries.) The transfer itself is a mixed bag. On the plus side, Willis’s famous mastery of contrast and shadows is well-represented with deep, strong blacks. However, the print is marred throughout by noticeable age artifacts. Even more distracting is a lack of image stability in many scenes. (These problems could surely have been avoided if Willis had been consulted during production of the DVD).

Another negative is the lack of English subtitles, an underrated DVD feature that can be useful when dialogue is difficult to hear (French and Spanish subtitles are included). This DVD’s tinny, mono soundtrack is easily the worst aspect of the package, which makes the lack of subtitles particularly annoying. Since Manhattan is one of the truly definitive visual portraits of New York, it’s hard not be disappointed by the lack of a similarly definitive DVD treatment.

  • Fight Club
    2.40:1 (16 x 9 Enhanced),
    Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround 2.0

    20th Century Fox, $34.98
Fight Club

After slipping Fight Club into the DVD player, the viewer is greeted with the usual copyright warning that stubbornly resists the fast-forward function. But it quickly becomes apparent that something is off. The screen flickers, and there seems to some sort of interference suddenly the text has become a confrontational screed. It’s a clever conceit: Fight Club’s resident anarchist, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), has gotten his greasy mitts on the DVD. It’s also the perfect introduction to one of the most subversive films ever to be green-lit by a major Hollywood studio.

Fight Club is a strange brew: bone-crunchingly violent one minute, arty the next; blackly comedic yet deeply serious; chock-full of dangerously anti-social notions, but ultimately highly moral. Once the viewer gets past the initially dire prospect of repeated lectures by Pitt (admittedly spectacular as Durden) on How to Really Live, Fight Club looks like it might live up to its ambitious goal of becoming the seminal film about our deeply dysfunctional times.

At the very least, the film is a nonstop visual marvel that doesn’t just reward but requires multiple viewings. Jeff Cronenweth’s bruise-hued cinematography contrasts the dull, desaturated shades of narrator Jack’s (Edward Norton) soulless corporate existence with the warm, almost sensual atmosphere of the subterranean fight clubs. Director David Fincher’s visual storytelling has never been more kinetic the sequence in which Durden’s droogs threaten a police commissioner in a hotel restroom could be studied shot-by-shot in film school editing classes. Remote-control jockeys will have a lot of fun freeze-framing five different instances in the film in which Durden has been subliminally spliced into scenes (for just one frame) before his initial introduction.

Fight Club is packaged on two disks. The first features the movie (delivered in a lively, super-sharp transfer and punishing Dolby Digital 5.1 sound) plus separate commentaries by Fincher; Pitt, Norton and Helena Bonham Carter along with Fincher; screenwriter Jim Uhls with Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk; and a host of crew members, including Cronenweth. All of the commentaries are worthy and interesting, but the writers deliver the most illuminating observations. Fight Club is a movie of provocative ideas, and who better to explain them than Palahniuk, the scribe who came up with this demented stew? He offers the rather unsettling information that much of the deviant behavior in the film is based on his real-life exploits with pals which means there are G-rated films circulating out there spliced with single frames from porno films. Meanwhile, Norton and Pitt observe that whenever the film presents a product placement, violence is imminent.

The second disk offers an almost fetishistic amount of behind-the-scenes material. The most unique and interactive feature allows viewers to track how several scenes took shape by offering an on-screen comparison of the storyboards, Fincher’s initial location scout and then the actual filming. Elsewhere, there are deleted scenes, in-depth explanations of special effects, full cast and crew bios, a discussion of the distinctive production design, and a surprisingly exhaustive look at the film’s promotional campaign, which was probably too sophisticated to connect with general audiences. Some of the trailers, press kit materials and Internet spots intended to induce viewers to pay to see the movie lampoon consumer culture even more impressively than the film itself. In the menu of this section, look for a hidden feature by hitting the downward direction arrow of your remote control: the viewer is given a tour of a highly sarcastic Fight Club collectible catalogue, which includes such items as a "2000 retro backpack," a "Fight Club adhesive bandage" and $40 T-shirts bearing self-consciously hip slogans.

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  • Blue Velvet
    2.35:1 (16 X 9 Enhanced), Dolby Surround 2.0
    MGM, $24.98
  • Being John Malkovich
    1.85:1 (16 X 9 Enhanced), Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0
    USA Home Entertainment,$24.95
Interview With the Vampire

The annals of Hollywood are littered with major studios’ ill-conceived attempts to adapt a much-beloved bestseller for the big screen. But director Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire, based on Anne Rice’s pop classic, is one of those rare cases when the studio got it right. An alternately humorous and mournful take on the vampire myth, the film is the sort of hugely entertaining but determinedly artistic and intelligent Hollywood blockbuster that has become all but extinct.

The cinematography of Philippe Rousselot, ASC, AFC (see AC Jan. ’95) was justly celebrated for its influential use of China-ball lighting units, which lend the film a soft, subtle ambience that runs counter to the harsher, more hard-lit vampire films of yesteryear. Interview is a real treat for the eyes, and Warner Home Video has done it justice with this new and improved DVD (the original DVD issued in 1997 had no extras). One might mistake the look of the transfer as being slightly flat at times, but the film’s hues (in particular the vampires’ flesh tones) are intentionally pale and delicate, and the disk perfectly captures this melancholy visual palette.

For extras, viewers get a well-informed director’s commentary from Jordan, who offers some amusing comparisons between vampires and Hollywood stars: the thirst for immortality, the isolation from the rest of humanity, the inability to "go out in the daylight." An excellent 30-minute documentary, "In the Shadow of the Vampire," is also included; it covers virtually every aspect of the project except the much-ballyhooed controversy over the casting of Tom Cruise in the pivotal role of the rakish Lestat. Additionally, the disk offers a few cast bios, a theatrical trailer and a promising-sounding supplement, "History of the Vampire," that turns out to be a mere Web link.

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Blue Velvet

The restorative powers of the DVD format are evident in the first few seconds of David Lynch’s 1986 masterpiece Blue Velvet. The opening image of the film blooming red roses and an immaculate white picket fence, set off against an eerily perfect blue sky virtually pops off the television screen. Thankfully, the rest of the DVD transfer hews to this standard, featuring beautiful colors, admirably strong blacks (and boy, does Lynch like his blacks), good shadow detail and very few noticeable age artifacts.

This is a film that must be seen in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, for Lynch has always been a painterly film stylist who uses every inch of the frame. By hitting the pause button during any number of scenes in Blue Velvet, the viewer can study the influence of Edward Hopper on Lynch’s bold compositions, making one wonder how this film was ever shown in a pan-and-scan format. With the help of cinematographer Frederick Elmes, ASC, who lent the film a moody and determinedly anti-slick lighting scheme, Lynch created a portrait of the shadow world lurking in peaceful suburbia, and his dark tale hasn’t lost a trace of its power.

This is a bare-bones DVD the only extras are a grainy trailer and a four-page booklet. While a director’s commentary from Lynch would undoubtedly be fascinating, it has to be said that the secrets of some films are best left unexplained.

With the curious young protagonist Jeffrey (Kyle McLachlan) serving as our stand-in, we enter into a mystery world of unspeakable horrors yet at no point can we take our eyes from the screen. Much of the weird spell cast by Blue Velvet is due to Lynch’s unsurpassed attention to cinematic texture the blood red of torch singer Dorothy Vallens’s lipstick, the eerie hallway hum in the Deep River Apartments, the jazzy foreboding of Angelo Badalamenti’s score and this DVD has captured it all with the utmost faithfulness.

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Being John Malkovich

The premise of Being John Malkovich reeks of self-conscious absurdity: Craig Schwartz (a straggly-haired John Cusack), a sad-sack puppeteer trapped in temp hell, comes upon an office door that serves as a portal into the brain of semi-famous American thespian John Malkovich. Visitors can see through the actor’s eyes for 15 minutes, after which they are abruptly ejected into a ditch off the New Jersey Turnpike. Along with an attractive but supremely bitchy co-worker (Catherine Keener, who earned an Oscar nomination for her performance), the puppeteer uses his newfound discovery to start a unique side business: paid visits to the Malkovich cranium. From there, complications of an extremely unpredictable, creepy and even metaphysical nature ensue. In fact, this reviewer still can’t quite get his head around the film’s final mind-bending twist.

The film easily could have turned insufferably arch, but its genius lies in first-time feature director Spike Jonze’s restrained, sober directorial tone. Virtually nothing in the style of the piece calls attention to itself, including the documentary-like camerawork of cinematographer Lance Acord. Most of the film seems to be shot with a bobbing, handheld camera, lending a you-are-there feel that effectively reduces the outlandishness of the premise. And there have been few feature films in recent years with such unremittingly ugly lighting. That’s not a knock, though, because the strategy is purposeful the fluorescent hell of the puppeteer’s office (located on the "7 1/2th floor") and the utter gloominess of his apartment effectively ram home why a visit to someone else’s reality could be such an addictive kick.

Being John Malkovich has been given a decent but unspectacular DVD transfer, with accurate colors and good sharpness but slightly soupy shadow detail in the darker scenes. As far as the supplemental material goes, you wouldn’t expect the standard making-of featurette, cast bios and director’s commentary, would you? USA Home Entertainment has matched the originality of the film with the most unusual DVD extras ever conceived. Two of the most amusing are slight cheats "7 1/2 Floor Orientation" and "American Arts & Culture Presents: John Horatio Malkovich, Dance of Despair and Disillusionment" are both in the actual film but the rest are new and offer gleefully subversive surprises.

There are four extremely inventive TV spots and a generous helping of Jonze’s off-kilter set photos. "An Intimate Portrait of the Art of Background Driving" is a fly-on-the-dashboard account of what bored extras chat about while driving cars to provide background action. "A Page With Nothing On It" gently goofs on the whole idea of DVD supplements. "An Interview With Director Spike Jonze" presents the director behind the wheel, chatting somewhat distractedly about his first feature before he well, you just have to see it to believe it.

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  • The Birds
    Collector’s Edition
    1.85:1 (16 x 9 Enhanced), Dolby 2.0 Mono
    Universal, $29.98
  • The Limey
    1.85:1 (16 x 9 Enhanced), Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround
    Artisan, $29.98
  • Three Kings
    1.85:1 (16 x 9 Enhanced), Dolby Digital 5.1
    Warner Home Video, $24.98
The Birds

The Birds remains the most mysterious and perplexing of Alfred Hitchcock’s 53 features. Is it a cautionary tale about brittle human relations? A richly metaphoric story of man versus nature? Or is it simply a classic Hitchcock thriller, injecting menace into things we complacently accept as ordinary and everyday?

Hitch himself undoubtedly welcomed all of the above interpretations, for The Birds saw the Master of Suspense going to devious and experimental lengths to create a truly multilayered work. Hitchcock stole away the audience’s customary emotional cues by unfurling the tale entirely without a musical score, instead substituting some extremely harsh and unnerving electronic ’bird effects.“ He and screenwriter Evan Hunter precisely timed the bird attacks between lengthy dialogue scenes, making it almost mandatory to go back for repeated viewings to scratch away at the film’s subtext. The rotund auteur also chose to close the film without credits or even a pithy ’The End,“ implying to an already frazzled audience that our feathered friends had not yet unleashed their ultimate vengeance upon humanity.

As with its previous Hitchcock DVD entries Vertigo and Psycho, Universal has really gone the extra mile to give The Birds (photographed by Hitchcock’s longtime cinematographer, Robert Burks, ASC) the deluxe home-video treatment it deserves. The superb new transfer boasts great sharpness, eye-popping color saturation and almost no grain. Some viewers might be thrown by several seemingly soft shots of Tippi Hedren, but the effect is due to the soft-focus treatment Hitchcock liked to lavish on his leading ladies, rather than any problem with the transfer. The Dolby 2.0 Mono sound, though perfectly adequate, is a bit less impressive than the video. One can only wonder how terrifying the bird attacks would be in the more enveloping Dolby Digital 5.1.

Leading off the extras is Laurent Bouzereau’s comprehensive documentary “All About The Birds,” which covers everything from the ingenious old-school effects throughout the film (Hitchcock reportedly used 371 trick shots in the finished film) to the true hell Hedren went through in the bird-attack scenes. It seems churlish to complain about a nearly 90-minute documentary, but perhaps more time could have been spent on the intriguing theories surrounding the film (Fellini called the film one of cinema’s greatest achievements, while feminist scholar Camille Paglia devoted an entire book to a psychosexual interpretation of it) and a tad less on all of the admittedly fascinating special-effects trickery. Although the slipcase implies that the disk contains a deleted scene and an ’original ending,“ this is a lot of hooey. The ’deleted scene“ comprises a series of production stills and script pages, while the alternate ending, never shot, consists merely of storyboard drawings and script. J’accuse, Universal! Also included is Hedren’s amusing original screen test with a wisecracking Martin Balsam (who had just worked with Hitchcock on Psycho), archival newsreels, production photos and another of Hitchcock’s peerless trailers.

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The Limey

Taking his stylistic cues from the existential revenge thrillers Point Blank (1968) and Get Carter (1971), director Steven Soderbergh is really onto something interesting with his cubist thriller The Limey. What started out in preproduction as a straightforward character piece eventually morphed into a complex extension of the non-linear, time-leaping structure Soderbergh experimented with in The Underneath and Out of Sight. Employing enigmatic flashbacks (and flashforwards), dialogue snippets that play out even when a character doesn’t seem to be talking, and repetitive, hypnotic musical cues, Soderbergh arrives at a profoundly cinematic method of mapping out the interior life of Cockney ex-convict Wilson (Terence Stamp) as he relentlessly pursues a corrupt Los Angeles record-industry mogul (Peter Fonda) whom Wilson believes has killed his daughter.

Soderbergh’s longtime cinematographer, Ed Lachman, ASC, tapped right into the adventurous spirit of The Limey, and his work ricochets between the stylized (e.g., the evocative, cyan-tinted flashbacks to Wilson’s recollections of a beach outing with his daughter) and the gritty (eschewing artificial lights altogether during a scene set in a downtown warehouse, allowing the sickly green hue of existing fluorescents take over). The DVD transfer is flawless, featuring sharp detail, robust color and excellent shadow detail. Audiophiles are also given a choice between listening to the film in Dolby Surround Sound or the more three-dimensional Dolby Digital 5.1.

The first of the two commentaries provided is a surprisingly contentious joint session between screenwriter Lem Dobbs and Soderbergh. Dobbs maintains that a few of the critics’ ’style-over-substance“ jabs (perhaps somewhat warranted) resulted from Soderbergh’s decision to sacrifice some scenes of character shading in the interest of directorial style. Whomever you side with, it’s fascinating to be privy to some of the classic writer-director tension that film buffs are forever reading about. A second ’docu-commentary“ is more free-form and experimental, containing interesting ruminations on the film’s ë60s subtext from the filmmakers and cast members who were there, man. A third audio track removes all dialogue, letting the aptly chosen ë60s songs and Cliff Martinez’s haunting score guide the viewer along. In addition to filmographies, trailers and production notes, one more feature has to be mentioned: a cleanly written ’technical specs“ essay by supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer Larry Blake, who explains the work that went into The Limey’s DVD transfer. For technical Luddites, this information will prove extremely enlightening.

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Three Kings

In his commentary track to Three Kings, director David O. Russell remembers feeling slightly deflated upon hearing that heavy hitters Steven Spielberg and Terrence Malick had their respective epics Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line en route to theaters as he readied his own war film for production. As it turned out, Three Kings became the perfect end piece to this trio of superb contemporary war films. Whereas Saving Private Ryan was visceral and emotional and The Thin Red Line meditative and existential, Three Kings takes the bizarre Persian Gulf ’media war“ of the early ë90s and runs with it, highlighting the schizophrenic, surreal and blackly comedic nature of modern combat.

Hats off to Warner Bros. for providing a pristine presentation of this inventive film, as well as a virtual curriculum on the Three Kings production. In the studio’s canon, this disk is perhaps second only to last year’s exhaustive The Matrix. In addition to Russell’s candid commentary, there is an equally compelling, separate audio track by garrulous producers Charles Roven and Ed McDonnell. The mischievous Spike Jonze, wearing his thespian’s hat for Three Kings, contributes a satirical poke at actors’ pretensions with a brief feature, ’An Intimate Look Inside the Acting Process With Ice Cube,“ as well as a few of his skewed set photos. AC readers will be particularly interested in a chat with Newton Thomas Sigel, ASC; the accomplished cinematographer discusses the bleach-bypass developing method employed to visually suggest the soldiers’ moral blankness in early scenes, as well as the gutsy decision to cross-process unwieldy Ektachrome still-photo reversal stock for a sizable portion of the film. Also included are several deleted scenes and production designer Catherine Hardwicke’s tour through the ’virtual Iraq“ she created in Mexican and southwestern American locations.

One extra, however, must be mentioned above all others: Russell’s hilarious ’video journal“ of the Three Kings project. The supplement begins in early 1998 to the sound of Warner Bros. honcho Lorenzo di Bonaventura speaking encouragingly about the script on Russell’s speakerphone in his New York apartment. From there, we are privy to Russell’s initial meetings with the actors (including a grumpy Mark Wahlberg, annoyed at the presence of a video camera) and the infuriating grind of budget meetings, rehearsals and preproduction. The journal then cleverly jump-cuts from the first day of filming to an explosion of flashbulbs at the film’s Los Angeles premiere. This entertaining, 13-minute short manages to capture all of the agony, ecstasy and pure tedium inherent in modern moviemaking.

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  • Eyes Wide Shut
    Full-frame, Dolby Digital 5.1
    Warner Home Video, $24.98
Eyes Wide Shut

During a recent guest appearance on Roger Ebert & The Movies, Martin Scorsese ranked Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut as the fourth best film of the 1990s. Elsewhere, the critical re-evaluation of the late director’s final opus is right on schedule. Greeted with hoots of critical derision and general bafflement from audiences upon its release last summer, Kubrick’s enigmatic film was done in by two of the most irritating banes of contemporary movie culture: misleading pre-release hype (for which Kubrick was at least partly responsible) and a general refusal by audiences to accept marquee stars in anything but the most literal of films.

Slow, labored and carefully ambiguous, Eyes Wide Shut is an old-school art film that asks more questions than it answers. The film is the perfect Freudian end piece to Kubrick’s filmography, in that it portrays the constant tension between our logical, "civilized" selves (embodied in the film by bourgeois doctor Bill Harford, played by Tom Cruise) and the repressed, primal impulses that constantly threaten to undermine us.

It’s a much-debated question whether Eyes Wide Shut takes place entirely within the seething subconscious of Harford, who goes on a nocturnal bender through the streets of New York after his wife (Nicole Kidman) admits that she once had powerful feelings of lust for another man. The film’s dreamlike ambience is due in part to Kubrick and lighting cameraman Larry Smith’s unconventional decision to force-develop their film stocks, lending a grainy, disorienting feel to Harford’s dark night of the soul.

With this solid transfer in the full-frame ratio preferred by Kubrick, Warner Home Video has somewhat atoned for last year’s flawed boxed set, The Stanley Kubrick Collection. An essential element of Kubrick’s films is the subliminal effect of certain colors, and thankfully, this disk offers brilliant color saturation note the deep, garish reds in the masked ball sequence and the cool, blue tones of Harford’s home. Image sharpness and contrast are excellent, and the clean Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack immerses the viewer in composer Jocelyn Pook’s moody, discordant score.

In terms of extras, viewers get production notes, three of Kubrick’s arresting trailers for the film, and separate interviews with Steven Spielberg (Kubrick’s longtime friend) and husband-and-wife stars Cruise and Kidman. Cruise’s interview is the most interesting, because the notoriously cautious star lets his guard down for once. (Watch for the moment when, with one unexpected four-letter expletive, the world’s biggest movie star reveals what it was like to play the repressed Harford for more than two years under Kubrick’s notoriously perfectionist direction.)

But the praise stops there. An asterisk should be placed on this DVD’s slipcase because of the studio’s shameful decision to present the much-derided, digitally altered version of the film that was released in U.S. theaters, instead of the uncut version seen by the rest of the world. The creation of digital onlookers to block the simulated sex in the film’s elaborate orgy sequence is not only clumsy-looking but illogical, since the scene in question is intended to be from the voyeuristic Harford’s point of view. Why not release a DVD with a seamless branching feature (seen in New Line’s Crash), offering both the R-rated and unrated versions of the film on one disk? Another option would have been to release two different disks. Surely the final film in Kubrick’s peerless body of work was worth the extra investment.

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Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Made in that halcyon era before American filmmakers (and America itself) became so damn cynical, Frank Capra’s 1939 picture, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, plays like a political prelude to his widely beloved 1946 humanist classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. Both films espouse Capra’s great theme: the profound difference a single man makes to the world around him. Jimmy Stewart is perfectly cast as Jefferson (get it?) Smith, a wet-behind-the-ears civic crusader hastily drafted by the powers-that-be to replace a veteran Montana senator who has unexpectedly passed away. Chosen under the assumption that a newcomer will be an easily manipulated rube, Smith quickly becomes disgusted by the strong-arm tactics and sheer corruption inside the Senate, and mounts a stirring, one-man rebellion.

Since this is a Capra film, there are a few corny moments and a happy ending that is perhaps too inevitable. But the director always earned the right to leave ’em smiling as the lights went up in this case, the dues are paid during Smith’s wrenching, marathon filibuster in the Senate, which remains as emotionally powerful as any scene in the Capra canon. And you just have to love any film that features an out-of-control street battle between Smith’s pint-sized army of Boy Rangers and the hardened droogs of newspaper magnate Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold).

Mr. Smith was expertly photographed by Capra’s longtime cinematographer, Joseph Walker, ASC. While the tale is mostly told in Capra’s patented, simple, straightforward style, there are indelible moments of pure cinema throughout, such as the artfully composed visit to the Lincoln monument, the smooth tracking shot behind Smith as he first enters the awesome environs of the Senate (painstakingly re-created in Columbia’s Gower Street studio in Hollywood), and the eloquent, extended detail shot of Smith’s fumbling hands as he grips his hat and stammers nervously to Senator Paine’s beautiful daughter.

This DVD looks about as good as one can reasonably expect from a film made more than 50 years ago. The Library of Congress National Film Registry spent three years and $100,000 to restore the film from the surviving original negative materials. The black-and-white image flickers in some scenes, and there are a few jarring edits (perhaps due to missing frames), but overall, this DVD features robust blacks, good sharpness, and clearly rendered dialogue with a minimum of hiss. Additional goodies include a short but useful featurette; the charming, old-fashioned trailer; vintage advertising stills; complete filmographies of the principals, and a laid-back audio commentary from the director’s son, Frank Capra Jr., a respected film producer in his own right. Unfortunately, the younger Capra’s commentary is a bit of a snooze; while he tells plenty of informative backstage stories about his famous dad, he often only skims over what we’re actually watching onscreen a shortcoming that afflicts many DVD commentaries. Nevertheless, this disk remains a fine rendering of an American classic.

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Natural Born Killers

Natural Born Killers presents the fascinating, all-too-rare spectacle of an A-list director gleefully abandoning his self-editing function, seemingly frame-grabbing images from the most twisted corners of his subconscious and transferring them straight to celluloid. Rather than adopting a cool, distanced directorial tone toward the film’s sweetheart serial killers, Mickey and Mallory Knox, Oliver Stone opted for a visceral, confrontational style that matched the mayhem wreaked by his lead characters. It was no-net filmmaking at its finest, and many critics and mainstream culture guardians misinterpreted Stone’s bludgeoning satire as an unwitting endorsement of the bloodthirsty ’90s culture it obviously meant to caricature.

Love it or hate it, Natural Born Killers (see AC Nov. ’94) is a feast of outrageous cinematic style, presented in a pristine (though non-anamorphic) widescreen transfer and a booming Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack on this definitive Trimark DVD. Stone and Robert Richardson, ASC, took the complex fusion of film stocks and formats they’d experimented with on 1991’s JFK and pushed the aesthetic to its most psychedelic extreme on NBK. Shot in a variety of formats, ranging from black-and-white 16mm to Hi-8 video to good old 35mm, the film has the disorienting feel of a television remote control that is channel-hopping furiously. Richardson plunged headfirst into Stone’s anarchic vision sometimes literally (at one point during production, the notoriously manipulative Stone goaded the cameraman straight into a prison-cell door while the latter was filming a handheld POV shot). The occasional bruising bout of "method cinematography" was well worth it, however; Richardson’s stunning work on this film will be remembered as a high-water mark of radical ’90s cinematography.

This director’s cut of the film restores the frames that had to be excised to placate the MPAA and get NBK that all-important R-rating for theatrical release. Most of the reinstatements are very brief, except for the gruesome fate of Tommy Lee Jones’s fascistic prison warden, which is lingered upon for several seconds. Elsewhere, the disk features a stream-of-consciousness commentary by Stone (who never misses a chance to point out the interesting color-coding used as psychological signposts throughout the film), his explanation of six entertaining but wisely deleted scenes, a truly bizarre alternate ending, and "Chaos Rising: The Storm Around Natural Born Killers," an excellent documentary about the NBK production which, by all accounts, was as crazed as the film itself.

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The Winslow Boy

At the other end of the ratings spectrum, we have David Mamet’s G-rated screen adaptation of British dramatist Terrence Rattigan’s 1946 play The Winslow Boy, a classy and refreshingly subtle entertainment that asks an ageless question: How far do you go to defend a moral principle? Set in turn-of-the-century London, the story follows a banker’s family as they fight to prove the innocence of their youngest son after he is accused of theft. When a highly respected lawyer (played brilliantly by Jeremy Northam) agrees to represent the boy, the case becomes an O.J. Simpson-like national spectacle, draining the banker’s resources and putting a strain on the family’s bond. This plot may sound a bit by-the-book, but both the lawyer’s motives in taking the case and the Winslow boy himself are lent just the right note of teasing ambiguity, leaving viewers slightly off-balance at the conclusion.

The Winslow Boy was photographed by Benoît Delhomme, AFC, with the simplicity and sly restraint that characterizes all of Mamet’s films. A clever, underrated film stylist, Mamet spins this tale with a real dealer’s hand. Unfortunately, the filmmakers’ sterling work has been undermined by this package’s disappointing widescreen anamorphic transfer, which suffers from a soft, gauzy picture, flesh tones that often veer too far toward pink and orange, and a noticeable lack of shadow detail in the dark areas of the frame (especially the male characters’ black, period formal wear). For proof, check out the included theatrical trailer, which somehow looks far better than the DVD transfer! The extras are solid, however, and include a behind-the-scenes featurette, talent files, production notes, and a polite, civilized commentary track from Mamet and cast members Nigel Hawthorne, Rebecca Pidgeon and Northam.

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Blue Collar

With its tragically flawed heroes, gritty milieu and uncompromisingly grim ending, Blue Collar is a quintessential ’70s film. Director/co-writer Paul Schrader’s underrated classic was mis-marketed upon its 1978 release as a Richard Pryor comedy, and promptly sank like a stone during its theatrical run. The film stars Harvey Keitel, Yaphet Kotto and a manic Pryor as three likable but bitter Detroit auto-factory workers who hatch a hilariously inept scheme to rob their ineffectual union’s coffers. In the process, Pryor uncovers documents detailing the depths of the union’s corruption. The trio’s decision to blackmail the union and the union’s decision to play hardball not only puts a strain on their friendship but also eventually places them in mortal danger.

Hopefully, Anchor Bay’s recent DVD release will attract some long-overdue attention to this sleeper. The widescreen anamorphic transfer is solid but unspectacular. Though Blue Collar was never designed to be a visual feast, the appropriately unpretentious, "working class" images (captured by cinematographer Bobby Byrne, ASC) have a soft patina throughout; the disk just doesn’t boast the crispness that DVD lovers have come to expect. On the plus side, the print is almost completely free of artifacts, and the colors are lively and accurate.

What really makes this DVD worth the price is one of the most rollicking director commentaries in recent memory. In an innovation that hopefully will catch on elsewhere, Anchor Bay has employed a foil in journalist Maitland McDonagh, who contributes her own sharp insights while keeping Schrader on course. The director is frank and self-effacing, admitting that because Blue Collar was his first effort behind the camera, he was "just trying to stay alive" and often left the visual responsibilities entirely up to Byrne. Those who have seen the director’s later, more stylish films (which include Cat People and The Comfort of Strangers) might be surprised by the lack of camera movement and even the dearth of cuts in some of Blue Collar’s scenes, but Schrader reveals valid reasons for the lack of coverage: the boiling tension among his three lead actors was so hot he never knew when one of them would storm off the set or even physically assault one of the others. This potentially explosive situation forced the filmmakers to capture conservative first takes with all of the actors in the shot, so that Schrader would have something on film. These revelations entertaining, candid and educational are why director commentaries were created.

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  • Rushmore
    The Criterion Collection
The Third Man

The story goes that William Wyler, after seeing The Third Man, presented director Carol Reed with a spirit level to place on his camera for his next outing, in order to forcibly prevent Reed from using any more Dutch angles. Yet it is Reed’s very modernism that makes this 1949 film noir study of postwar corruption in Vienna such an invigorating movie experience. The film’s baroque visual style has caused many film buffs to wonder whether Orson Welles (who delivers a delicious star turn as Harry Lime, the utterly venal but strangely charming racketeer) strayed from his acting chores on the set to take a hand in the film’s direction. The answer may be yes and no. Welles was really an actor-for-hire on this film, one whose casting was forcibly opposed by American distributor David O. Selznick, but the daring visual spirit of Welles’s own Citizen Kane pervades Reed’s film.

Featuring digitally restored image and sound, The Third Man has been given a superb, vibrant transfer by Criterion. While there is noticeable flickering of the image in some scenes, the clarity and contrast level of BSC member Robert Krasker’s rich, black-and-white images are excellent overall. You can see what Criterion was up against in one of the disc’s most interesting supplements, a five-minute “before and after” demonstration detailing some of the staggering 22,000 repairs that were made to the print.

Elsewhere, the disc boasts the exhaustive attention to detail that characterizes many of Criterion’s releases. Writer/director Peter Bogdanovich offers a scholarly introduction to the film. The viewer can listen to an abridged reading of Graham Greene’s script treatment, hear an episode of Welles’s The Lives of Harry Lime radio series, and compare the opening voice-over narrations of the British and American versions of the film. (Selznick hated Reed’s cynical introduction in the British version and ordered lead actor Joseph Cotten to deliver a less morally ambiguous version for the Yanks.) If all of these bonuses aren’t enough, the disc also offers archival footage of Viennese composer Anton Karas playing The Third Man’ s naggingly catchy zither music, a look at the actual Vienna sewers where Lime loved to lurk, and plenty of vintage production photos — but not a single one of Welles looking through the viewfinder.

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The Graduate

Has there ever been a greater one-word line of dialogue than “Plastics!”? With brutal economy, this exclamation sums up the entire shallow, upper-middle-class, suburban world that track star Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) is running from throughout The Graduate. The screenplay of Mike Nichols’s seminal 1967 study of the generation gap has been justly celebrated through the years, but this MGM DVD highlights the film’s equally memorable visual style.

An inventive, insightful director, Nichols clearly had a lot of fun framing the film’s witty images with cinematographer Robert Surtees, ASC, whose work garnered an Oscar nomination. Anyone who says comedies need not be well-photographed should take another look at the impeccable, widescreen compositions preserved on this DVD.

Although The Graduate has been given a solid transfer by MGM, Nichols’s zest for risk-taking occasionally tests the disc’s technical boundaries. For example, the blacks don’t quite hold up in a daringly drawn-out dialogue scene between Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson (memorably embodied by Anne Bancroft) that is played almost entirely in the pitch blackness of a bedroom. For the most part, however, the images have good sharpness and color saturation, with surprisingly little grain. The worst aspect of the disc is the Dolby Stereo Surround sound, which to these ears sounds more like tinny mono.

A director’s commentary from Nichols would have been a real treat, but MGM has instead included an entertaining documentary with recollections from some of The Graduate’s principals: Hoffman, actress Katharine Ross, co-screenwriter Buck Henry and producer Lawrence Turman. Hoffman, in particular, is a gifted storyteller, with such a razor-sharp memory of the shoot that the rest of his comments are included in a separate supplement. When watching the film, make sure to listen for the pathetic whimpers Hoffman voiced in a certain take, which Nichols mischievously spliced throughout the movie.

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The modern flipside to The Graduate would be Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, which tracks the misadventures of a tireless, go-getting prep school protagonist (a role nailed by newcomer Jason Schwartzman) who knows exactly what he wants out of life. The problem is, the world around him can’t quite contain his ambitions. Such is young Max Fischer’s assurance that middle-aged millionaire Mr. Blume (Bill Murray) earnestly asks the enterprising lad, “What’s the secret, Max?” The line is just one more sly inversion in a decidedly unique coming-of-age film that presents the slightly surreal universe of Rushmore Academy with total integrity from beginning to end.

Cinematographer Robert Yeoman’s cool, autumnal tones and Anderson’s symmetrical compositions are presented flawlessly on this Criterion disc. The Anderson-approved wide-screen anamorphic transfer boasts superb detail, brilliant color saturation and perfect blacks. The viewer can almost feel Rushmore’s deep-green lawns amid the film’s evocative fall ambiance. Max’s hilariously crowd-pleasing school plays really come alive, thanks to the surprising punch of the disc’s the Dolby Digital 5.1 sound (which is particularly effective during his ambitious staging of the Vietnam-film homage Heaven & Hell).

Criterion has produced a DVD that truly exploits the format’s dazzling capabilities, and the strongest tribute to Rushmore may be the fact that the film itself actually stands up to the cornucopia of analyses packed onto the disc. First off is an excellent commentary provided by Anderson, co-writer Owen Wilson and Schwartzman. Their insights enhance an idiosyncratic film that may strike some, on an initial viewing, as being slightly arch. Anderson’s brother, Eric, who has a bit part in the film, contributes an amusing, behind-the-scenes look at the making of Rushmore, and an entire Charlie Rose program featuring Anderson and Murray is also included. The viewer can even enjoy footage of cast auditions, Anderson’s hand-drawn storyboards, the trailer in widescreen anamorphic (!) and the Max Fischer Players’ theatrical adaptations of Armageddon, Out of Sight and The Truman Show for the 1999 MTV Movie Awards. One last bon-bon is offered for true Rushmore obsessives: a hand-drawn poster insert of Fischer s world, which painstakingly maps out the film s key events.

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  • Easy Rider
    Columbia TriStar
    Special Edition
Easy Rider

Because it immerses the viewer so thoroughly in the 1960s hippie aesthetic, Easy Rider is one of those films indelibly rooted in the era in which it was made. But director Dennis Hopper's refreshingly European-flavored film is too ambitious to be dismissed as a quaint relic of the Flower Power era it's important to remember that the overwhelming critical and commercial success of Easy Rider was one of the true catalysts of the '70s renaissance in American film, a vibrant era in which the director was God and studio heads cowered in his shadow.

Mindful of Easy Rider's influence, Columbia TriStar has rolled out a deluxe, full-dress edition of this important film. The instinctive, naturalistic cinematography of Laszlo Kovacs, ASC is well-represented here, as the anamorphic widescreen transfer features excellent sharpness and surprisingly robust color saturation. A few scenes look slightly washed-out, and some pesky age artifacts are present during the night campfire scenes. But considering the age of the source materials (and the major restoration effort required to repair and preserve them), these small imperfections are quite acceptable.

The real bonus of this very reasonably priced disc is a fascinating and exhaustive one-hour documentary, Easy Rider: Shaking the Cage. Despite the pungent haze of marijuana smoke that permeated the Easy Rider production, the filmmakers' reminiscences are astonishingly clear-eyed. The principal contributors to the documentary are director/star/co-writer Hopper (who reveals that his aim was to make the "first American art film"), producer/co-star/co-writer Peter Fonda, associate producer William Hayward, production manager Paul Lewis and Kovacs, who admits that he was one of the few sober-minded crew members on the set. "We figured somebody had to make this movie!" he notes with a laugh at one point. Particulary fascinating are Kovacs's explanation of the helicopter shot that ends the film, and the filmmakers' ruminations on the meaning of Captain America's famously enigmatic line, "We blew it."

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No cinematographer has ever photographed Los Angeles quite like John Alonzo, ASC did in Roman Polanski's 1974 masterpiece Chinatown, which renders the City of Angels as a beautiful, sprawling metropolis that's unmistakably sinister around the edges. Film noir experienced a rebirth with the release of this eloquent study of personal and political corruption in 1940s Los Angeles, a potboiler that revolves around, of all things, a water scandal.

While supplements are always welcome on a DVD of a classic film, it's the quality of the audio and visual presentation that should always be the crucial factor if a disc is to earn a place in the proud film buff's personal library. This edition of Chinatown does not disappoint, with Alonzo's famous golden-hued tones rendered perfectly throughout. The widescreen transfer features rich color saturation, excellent blacks and an almost total absence of grain. Special mention must also be made of the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, which envelopes the listener in Jerry Goldsmith's sultry score.

Rounding out the disc is the film's original trailer (in widescreen, no less), which gives away a shocking amount of the film's dense plot, and interviews with the three most crucial behind-the-scenes Chinatown players: producer Robert Evans, screenwriter Robert Towne and director Polanski. Evans's comments amount to little more than back-slapping, but Polanski and Towne's insights are fascinating, leaving a hungry viewer wondering why there aren't more of them. Indeed, the interview segment clocks in at a mere 13 minutes. When the subjects are this accomplished and articulate, and the topic is Chinatown, let the tape roll!

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Apocalypse Now

Back in that long-ago era when audio CDs were the cutting-edge in home technology, Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon was widely regarded as the ultimate test of your sound system's fidelity. The DVD format already boasts many of its own "litmus tests" (the D-Day sequence of Saving Private Ryan or the climactic shootout in L.A. Confidential, to name just two), but you can add to the list Chapter 6 on Paramount/American Zoetrope's new Apocalypse Now disc. This is the notorious sequence during Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam War epic in which the U.S. Air Cavalry mounts a hellacious helicopter raid on a tiny North Vietnamese village, to the bombastic musical strains of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries." The entire 10-minute sequence is a tour de force of booming sound, eye-popping color and all-around filmmaking moxie in short, a perfect workout for your home theater system.

It's no surprise that the rest of the Apocalypse Now disc has been assembled with the same scrupulous care the new in-house DVD Lab of director Francis Ford Coppola's own company, American Zoetrope, created the film's DVD master with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC supervising the new film-to-tape transfer. Apocalypse Now is American Zoetrope DVD Lab's second title after the mid-1999 release of Fando & Lis, a 1968 cult classic directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky.

Apocalypse Now is presented in widescreen format enhanced for 16 x 9, along with a lengthy trailer and excerpts from the original theatrical program, in which Coppola rather aptly compares his arduous directorial journey to that of Martin Sheen's Capt. Willard in the film: "[We were both] moving up a river in a faraway jungle, looking for answers and hoping for some kind of catharsis." But the most interesting supplement is the inclusion of the mysterious "Destruction of the Kurtz Compound" footage, which ran underneath the end credits when the film was expanded to wide release in theaters (the original 70mm release had no onscreen credits; audience members were handed a written program with the credits). Coppola provides an interesting optional commentary over the surreal five-minute sequence, which is a fairly stunning piece of filmmaking in its own right.

DVD submissions for possible inclusion on this page should be sent to:
American Cinematographer in care of Executive Editor Stephen Pizzello
1782 North Orange Drive, Hollywood, CA 90028.

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  • Halloween
    Anchor Bay
    Limited Edition, $44.98
    Standard, $30

Until now, fright fans unable to pony up the cash for the pricy (and since-discontinued) Criterion Collection widescreen laserdisc release of John Carpenter's 1978 classic Halloween have had to endure (excuse the forthcoming pun) hacked-up, pan-and-scan versions of the film. Thus, viewing this classic chiller in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio on this pristine Anchor Bay DVD is both a jarring and truly satisfying experience for those who wish to properly scrutinize the film's precise, Hitchcockian widescreen compositions and stalking Steadicam shots.

It's safe to say that Halloween, which was expertly photographed by ace cinematographer Dean Cundey, ASC, has never looked better in any home-video incarnation. The widescreen anamorphic transfer is amazingly sharp and almost completely free of the nicks and scratches that are usually unavoidable on prints dating from the 1970s or earlier. The picture's blacks are industrial-strength, and colors pop particularly Cundey's eerie blue backlight and the most satanic orange jack-o'-lanterns ever committed to film.

Except for the unfortunate lack of a commentary track from Carpenter (which is present on the Criterion LD), this Limited Edition disc is loaded with all of the extras a hardcore Halloween buff could ever crave. Included is a second disc featuring the full "television version" of the film in widescreen, no less for which Carpenter shot four extra scenes two years after the original release to pad out a two-hour broadcast time slot. The additions are interesting but nonessential, consisting mainly of scenes in which Donald Pleasance's splendidly solemn psychiatrist warns some hilariously skeptical state hospital workers about Michael Myers's impending mayhem. More illuminating is the 30-minute Halloween Unmasked documentary, in which the filmmakers reveal some surprising influences: Touch of Evil (which inspired Halloween's bravura opening murder sequence, executed in one continuous shot) and Chinatown (a veritable primer on creating subtle visual menace).

The "standard" version of the disc includes all of the extras (the documentary, behind-the-scenes still photos, trailers, and TV and radio spots) except the "television version" supplemental disc.

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Saving Private Ryan

Steven Spielberg's cautious entry into the DVD arena has long tormented the format's true believers. While the director has released a few titles (1941, Amistad) in the new format, DVD addicts still salivate over the prospect of cueing up deluxe collector's editions of such classics as Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark and Schindler's List.

DreamWorks' new Special Limited Edition disc of Saving Private Ryan heralds the filmmaker's latest foray into the DVD universe with a stunning transfer of 1998's best film (Oscars be damned). While no home viewing of Saving Private Ryan can equal the overwhelming barrage of sound and fury offered up on a big screen, this powerful DVD presentation comes alarmingly close to transforming the viewer's living room into a private Omaha Beach.

In short, this disc boasts a reference-quality, anamorphic widescreen DVD transfer. With lacerating sharpness and rich contrast, it captures every subtle nuance of Janusz Kaminski, ASC's innovative, Academy Award-winning cinematography, from the hyper-real, carefully desaturated scenes of the D-Day invasion to the classic compositions shot at the American military cemetery in Normandy. (It's said that Kaminski's use of 90- and 45- degree shutter angles rendering ultra-detailed images played havoc with the compression algorithm used to author this disc.)

Special mention must be made of the truly enveloping Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. Even if you have just two stereo speakers working, you'll feel virtually pinned down by murderous German gunfire. The easy-to-read subtitles are also useful for those of us who had trouble discerning some of the shouted dialogue during the film's chaotic battle scenes.

The disc's extras aren't plentiful. There is no commentary track by Spielberg, but the director does weigh in with a short, classy message about why he pursued the project. Also included is a 25-minute documentary, Into the Breach, featuring insights from Spielberg, the cast, various World War II veterans, historian Stephen Ambrose and U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Dale Dye, who takes great relish in detailing how he transformed "soft" Hollywood actors into the battle-hardened grunts who appear onscreen. The documentary includes a fascinating glimpse at a few of Spielberg's first war movies, made when he was a teen (with his dad, Arnold, serving as the gaffer). The clips clearly demonstrate that the kid had it even back then.

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Stop Making Sense

Routinely dubbed "one of the greatest rock 'n' roll movies ever made," Jonathan Demme's 1983 film of a Talking Heads performance at Hollywood's Pantages Theater still lives up to the hype. It's difficult at first to discern why the seamless Stop Making Sense does it so much better than the rest, but a careful viewing of this exhaustive Palm Pictures release offers some clues.

For once in a concert film, the viewer isn't subjected to lame, phony audience reaction shots (until the very end of the film, when they offer a true payoff). At all times, our perspective is that of a paying audience member at the show. Demme and cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, ASC refrained from using dizzying, MTV-style crane shots and garish zooms; the visual style of the film is virtually ego-free, tastefully balancing well-timed close-ups of the performers' expressive faces with wide views of Cronenweth's brilliant lighting design and the Heads' minimalist stage.

However, this disc's presentation of the film is far from flawless. The blacks are muddy, the picture is quite grainy (particularly during the bare-bones early numbers), and wear and tear on the source print is noticeable throughout. The sound, however, is another story, offering the options of a "feature film mix" (placing the listener right in the front row at the Pantages), a "studio mix" (the tight sound from the mixing board) or Dolby Stereo 2.0.

Where the disc truly excels is in the plethora of extra features. A commentary track features articulate insights from Demme and all four Heads (the long-bickering bandmates recorded their comments in separate studios). Fortunately, each of the five commentators' voices are distinct and easy to identify! The disc also offers three extra songs placed right after the end of the film, but one wonders why these scorching performances weren't incorporated into the main portion of the disc, as they were in previous VHS releases. Rounding out this generous package is the ever-arty Byrne's surreal interview of himself, as well as storyboard sketches, an explanation of his iconic "Big Suit," production notes and a pair of superbly edited trailers.

DVD submissions for possible inclusion on this page should be sent to:
American Cinematographer in care of Executive Editor Stephen Pizzello
1782 North Orange Drive, Hollywood, CA 90028.

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